Mercury Bay Community Arts Centre Project Takes a Step Forward
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Mercury Bay Community Arts Centre Project Takes a Step Forward

C Updated
Mercury Bay Community Choir

In a significant development for the Mercury Bay and Coromandel Eastern Seaboard arts communities, the Mercury Bay Arts Centre Steering Committee has completed a feasibility study, affirming the critical need for a public arts centre in the region. The study sheds light on the challenges faced by local artists, the vision for the proposed arts centre and the steps required for it to become a reality.

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Pictured above : Mercury Bay Community Choir performing in the Whitianga Town Hall

Creative Coromandel, on behalf of the Mercury Bay Arts Centre Steering Committee (the Steering Committee), engaged Christine Ennis of CME Consulting to undertake an independent feasibility study for its project proposal to establish an arts centre in Whitianga. 

The study assessed the need for and the viability of establishing a public arts centre in Whitianga that would service the communities of Mercury Bay and the wider Coromandel Eastern Seaboard areas. My finding is there is overwhelming support for an Arts Centre and many people think it is a long overdue community facility which could offer much to not only the arts sector but to schools and businesses too.  I believe, from the feedback I received, it will be well utilised and people I spoke with are keen to share their ideas on how they would like to use such a facility.  

– Christine Ennis, CME Consulting

Vision for the proposed arts centre

The project's mission statement is to “establish a flexible arts facility in Te Whanganui o Hei | Mercury Bay which recognises tangata whenua and the ancestral and spiritual landmarks of Te Whanganui o Hei, serves diverse creative expression and all art forms, and brings communities together to create, collaborate, learn and be inspired.”

To ensure the feasibility study accurately reflected the community's needs, a programme of consultation and stakeholder engagement workshops and an online survey was undertaken late last year, all garnering key community insights. 

Current challenges faced by local artists

The study found that there is strong community support particularly from the Mercury Bay and Tairua arts communities for an arts centre based right at the heart of the community, close to the Whitianga pedestrian and recreation area by Whakau Reserve | Taylor’s Mistake. There was also acknowledgment that creating a venue further out of town could be a viable possibility as it could in itself become a ‘destination’ to visit.

At the Tairua consultation hui the local creative community enthusiastically supported the establishment of a flexible arts centre in Whitianga which would serve both performing and visual artists and audiences of the area. They see that such a centre, that also includes spaces for workshops and meetings, would develop a sense of community connection right along the Eastern Seaboard, support businesses and provide a destination for arts tourism on the Coromandel. We also lack a public venue that is well set up for the arts here in Tairua and our arts events have become very popular.  We see a real need for an arts space like this for the schools to encourage the development of the arts in future generations.  At the hui, the Tairua arts community indicated they would travel to Whitianga and hoped that this vision of a multi-purpose arts centre would become reality soon.

– Jean McCann, Tairua artist and Mercury Bay Arts Centre Steering Committee. 

The saturation of Whitianga Town Hall bookings, use of the Old Whitianga Fire Station and the need to ensure the inclusion of a community arts centre in any possible future Mercury Bay civic centre planning were recurring themes from stakeholder sessions. The importance of partnerships, and the alignment of the Mercury Bay Arts Centre Project with local, regional, and national strategies were also common themes. 

This concept of a Mercury Bay Arts Centre is the most exciting project for the visual arts and the wider arts community I’ve seen in 15 years working with the Mercury Bay Art Escape Trust and a great result for the steering committee coming out of earlier work by Sharyn Morcom and others. The eastern seaboard of the Coromandel Peninsula and Mercury Bay in particular are renowned for the arts with tourists and locals alike along with most of the Thames-Coromandel district, and now we finally have a live, do-able exhibition and performance centre proposal.

 – Stuart Christie, Chairman Mercury Bay Art Escape Trust and member of Te Whanganui o Hei / Mercury Bay Arts Centre Steering Committee 

While the Mercury Bay Arts Centre Project is aiming for a new purpose built Whitianga based arts centre in the long-term, the feasibility study also identifies the need to work towards securing a short to mid-term option possibly using an existing building as a solution while the vision of a future civic centre is planned and realised.    

What a new community arts centre could offer

The Steering Committee, for the time being, a sub-committee of Creative Coromandel, is leading the Art Centre project. It is envisaged that the Mercury Bay Art Centre venue would include spaces fit for all art forms, ensuring accessibility, reflecting the district's cultural ethos, working successfully with manawhenua, and demonstrating environmental sustainability. It is proposed that the Mercury Bay Arts Centre would include a dynamic combination of gallery space, a theatre/performance area, workshop spaces, and state-of-the-art amenities. The emphasis is on creating flexible spaces with movable walls and retractable tiered seating, allowing multi-purpose use.

It is well recognised that the availability of a suitable venue can significantly influence the level of arts activity in a community and the Steering Committee believes the proposed Arts Centre will fill what is currently a dearth of arts practice and participation space for Mercury Bay and Eastern Seaboard artists and arts audiences.  We envision the centre will become a cultural anchor point, contributing to the vibrancy, economy, and social well-being of the Coromandel Peninsula.  It is our intention for the centre to be a learning space for creatives of all ages, with a particular goal to serve and inspire our community’s young people.  The Steering Committee will continue to consult with Ngāti Hei Trust seeking to ensure the centre serves toi (arts) needs of manawhenua and reflects key principles of te ao Māori.

– Jan Wright, Mercury Bay Arts Centre Steering Committee Member and Creative Coromandel District Arts Manager

Next planning steps

An indicative cost of $3 million to $6 million has been used for a high-level funding assessment and the project's success will require securing suitable premises and external funding.

The feasibility report concluded that the next planning steps for the Steering Committee and project should involve exploring a shorter-term solution of repurposing an existing building to accommodate the identified spaces, with a long-term solution that could involve a new build. Continuing to develop partnerships and collaborations with Ngāti Hei Trust, tangata whenua, the Thames Coromandel District Council, local businesses and other community organisations is seen as essential for the project's success. 

In 2024 the Steering Committee will be driving the project forward with a submission to the Thames Coromandel District Council Long-Term Plan 2024-34 to formalise Council commitment for the project. The Steering Committee is also seeking additional committee members to build the capacity of their team as they formalise the group’s legal structure, increase communications and seek further funding to support the next phases in the steps to having a Mercury Bay Arts Centre. 

How to become involved 

If you are interested in joining the committee, would like to make a financial or in-kind contribution to the project or would like further information email Jan Wright - Mercury Bay Arts Centre Steering Committee. 

Background information about the project

The Coromandel Peninsula has a rich history of attracting creative minds, from the first explorers and pioneers to the artisans of the 1960s and 1970s. The region has earned a reputation for creativity and is home to a vibrant arts community. The annual Mercury Bay Art Escape and numerous arts events in the region underscore the importance of the arts to the community, contributing not only to cultural richness but also to economic well-being.

The Coromandel Peninsula's artistic legacy traces its roots back to the earliest explorers, pioneers, and the first wave of artisans in the 1960s and 1970s. The region, now renowned nationally and internationally for its creativity, has been a haven for writers, artists, craftspeople, and performers. The "Coromandel Arts and Creative Industries Strategy," adopted in 2016, underscores the region's significance in fostering creativity and artistic expression.

A mapping project in 2014 confirmed the Thames-Coromandel rohe as a regional hotspot of arts activity and talent. The continuous cycle of "like attracts like '' has contributed to the thriving artistic community. Today, the arts play a vital role in the cohesion and inclusion of the diverse communities that constitute Te Whanganui o Hei|Mercury Bay.

The arts not only encourage social participation and expression of individuality but also contribute significantly to economic well being. The arts and recreation industries contributed $24 million in 2021 to the Peninsula's economy, attracting domestic and international tourism. The annual Mercury Bay Art Escape, an open studios tour and exhibition, recorded 8,200 studio visits in 2021, connecting artists with new audiences and showcasing the region's artistic prowess.

In the period from October 2021 to April 2022, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 lockdowns, 209 arts events took place in the Thames-Coromandel district, emphasising the resilience and importance of the arts in challenging times. The region has been a haven for writers, artists, craftspeople, and environmentalists, contributing to the rich tapestry of Coromandel's past.

Mercury Bay Arts Centre Steering Committee Members 

The current Te Whanganui o Hei | Mercury Bay Arts Centre Steering Committee Members are as follows: 

Jan Wright - Creative Coromandel District Arts Manager 

Past Chair and Trustee He Mana Toi Moehau Trust | Creative Coromandel 

A singer, producer and arts facilitator, Jan graduated from Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design in 2012 with an MA in Arts Management (Hons). Her lifetime passion for the arts has led to years of involvement in choirs and facilitating arts events. Jan chaired Creative Coromandel for its first five years and is excited about the next phases of development for the Trust, having passed the baton to friend and colleague, Len Salt, in 2021, which was then taken up by Fiona Cameron in 2022 when Len Salt became mayor of Thames-Coromandel. Jan believes that collaboration, co-operation and the celebration of diversity within any community or organisation, big or small, is the fastest route to enablement, wellbeing and the creation of social “glue”. She attempts to hold Creative Coromandel’s values always at the centre of her consciousness and actions: mā te tika, mā te pono, me te aroha (doing that which is right; honesty; with love/compassion). 

Stuart Christie

Stuart has been involved with the Mercury Bay Art Escape since the 2000’s through friendships in the art community and he became a Trustee when the MB Art Escape Trust was formed in 2010 and served two terms as Chairman up to 2022. He’s not an artist, but with a background as a senior manager and governance in the corporate world and time in the finance industry and real estate, Stuart has brought a range of skills to the work of promoting art and artists in the community and liaising with local and central government. Part-time residents of Hahei for several decades, Stuart has wide contacts in Mercury Bay and the wider arts community and thoroughly enjoys his involvement with Mercury Bay Art Escape Trust and its members. 

David Kane 

David and his wife Sharron have had a long-term commitment to the arts and, before moving from Hamilton to Whitianga in 2006, spent many hours supporting their three children with piano, barbershop, dance, youth choirs, brass bands, local orchestras, and musical theatre. David trained as a pharmacist and his work experience includes researching and writing medical guidelines, policies and educational resources for health professionals. Prior to retiring in December 2020, David spent 10 years as a Clinical Pharmacist at Thames Hospital. He has a strong commitment to the arts and believes a strong arts sector encourages a sense of community through the expression and celebration of the unique cultural heritage of Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Shannon Duncan 

Shannon is a long-time resident of Whitianga and surrounding areas for 46 years. She attended Mercury Bay Area School and grew up being in the school plays, with arts and graphic design being key areas of interest to her.   She was a co-producer, producer and actor in the "Mercury Bay Players" shows at the Mercury Bay Club (RSA) for 10 years. Shannon was also on the Board of Trustees at the Mercury Bay Area School for 18 months many years ago and a community arts facility was always a topic the Board wished to address with the leaders from the school. Shannon is excited to be a part of this new venture, which she believes is overdue by many years. She is grateful for this opportunity to get the ball rolling. 

Isabel Gilbert-Palmer Ngāti Rangitāne Ngāti Raukawa 

Isabel has had her home on the Coromandel Peninsula since the 1980’s, only returning home from a summer-to-summer lifestyle between Europe and Kūaotunu, permanently, in 2016. She is a published author specialising in gardens, food and art journals and books, and was entrepreneurial in art and flower stage productions for ten years in the USA, including Bouquet to Arts at de Young Museum in San Francisco. Since her return to Kūaotunu, Isabel has become a driving force within the small teams behind many local arts events which are drawing artists and audiences to the small and vibrant Te Whanganui o Hei | Mercury Bay community from Whangārei to Wellington and Hawke’s Bay. Presently, Isabel is occupied with a team working on a community project to establish an exhibition venue for Kūaotunu, and at the same time contributing to the Te Whanganui o Hei Arts Centre Steering Committee.  

Steve Hughes 

Steve, an accomplished architectural designer and seasoned project director, possesses a distinctive blend of qualifications and a wealth of experience. A graduate with distinction, he holds a Bachelor of Architectural Studies, a Bachelor of Architecture, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Business from the University of Auckland. With an impressive 25-year track record in design and construction worldwide, Steve is well-versed in orchestrating successful projects. 

From conceptualisation and feasibility studies to final delivery and occupancy, Steve brings a wealth of governance expertise to the table. His extensive experience extends to collaboration with both Central and Local Government entities, as well as private developments ranging from $50,000 to $100,000,000.

In 2020, Steve, alongside his family, made a deliberate move to the picturesque Coromandel, just beyond Tairua. Residing in the inaugural certified Passive House in the region, the family is committed to a sustainable lifestyle with the guiding principle of 'do better with less.' In addition to their commitment to sustainability, they are enthusiastic collectors and supporters of New Zealand art and artists. 

Steve's professional trajectory is marked by a commitment to excellence, innovation, and sustainable practices. The relocation to the Coromandel further underscores his dedication to leading by example in fostering environmentally conscious living. 

Jean McCann 

With a background in education and currently still involved in this sector as an independent contractor, Jean brings strengths in management, governance, and a desire and drive for action and completing projects to the Steering Committee. 

In the arts field, being from a creative family she developed her love of watercolour painting. As an artist, she attended various workshops in South Africa in a variety of mediums and exhibited in South Africa before coming to New Zealand in 1997 and exhibiting as a member of the Feilding Art Group till 2002. In Manawatū, she held solo exhibitions and exhibited at the Manawatū Arts Awards. From 2002 to 2011 she was an active member of the Estuary Arts Centre, Orewa and a regular exhibitor. 

Since retiring and moving to live permanently in Tairua, she has joined the local Tairua Art Group and currently exhibits at the Little Gallery in Tairua. A member of the Mercury Bay Art Escape and the Tairua representative, she has held open studios in 2021 and again in 2023. In Tairua, Jean has been active in the community being Chair of the Ratepayers Association, President of the local Focus Club, a member of the Board of the Tairua Golf Club and is Tairua co-ordinator for the Daffodil Day for the local community. She is also the Tairua/Pauanui representative Trustee for Creative Coromandel.

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